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Lord Parekh: My Lords, in my brief contribution I want to concentrate on three issues. I have chosen these issues because they have been touched upon only briefly, if at all. I do not want to talk about the Bills
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that will come before us, because we will talk about them when the occasion arises, so I shall use this occasion to flag up three important issues mentioned briefly in the Queen's Speech.
The first relates to the Commission for Equality and Human Rights. It is an extremely important idea but it will be fraught with all kinds of problems unless we are very careful. The Speech refers to two things: a single commission dealing with equality but also one that takes within its remit the idea of human rights. I want to take each in turn.
A single commission for equality would be most welcome, for very obvious reasons. We already have three commissions and, if the European directive is to be followed, we will add two more. That is obviously far too many. It will be costly and administratively cumbersome. The five commissions, if we had them, would tend to miss out various forms of discrimination that cut across various categories.
For all those reasons, we certainly need a single commission for equality. But let me alert your Lordships' House to the problems. First, we cannot have a single commission for equality without a single equality Act, which is not yet in place. Secondly, different forms of discrimination have different histories and raise different issues. If a single commission is to be set up, it must obviously be very sensitive to the different ways in which gender, race and other forms of discrimination operate and are tackled.
We would also need to be careful about how we allocated the resources and energy of the commission. There is a fear in many circles that gender discrimination would tend to receive privileged treatment over disability or race discrimination. It is not just a question of merging the existing commissions, because they have different histories. We should make a clean break from all those commissions and start thinking in terms of a new culture, concerned not just with segmented inequalities such as race, gender and so on, but with fostering a culture of equality in general.
As I said, this commission will be concerned not just with equality but also with human rights. At the time of the Runnymede Trust's report, the members of the commission that I chaired, along with my noble friend Lord Dholakia and many others, thought that perhaps equality and human rights raised very different issues and that it might be better for this country to have two separate commissions.
Increasingly, I am beginning to feel that perhaps we should try a single commission for equality and human rightsa view also held by the Select Committee on Human Rights. However, we must be very careful that the equality agenda is different from the human rights agenda. They have different historical origins and they require different concerns.
A simple example would be the issue of incitement to religious hatred. When that issue is looked at from the standpoint of equality, it is obvious that it should be illegal and disallowed. But from the standpoint of human rights, it involves violation of the right of free
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speech and free expression. Therefore, one reaches a different conclusion. For example, on looking at our debate some months ago on the incitement to religious hatred, people reached different conclusions depending on whether they were looking from the standpoint of human rights or from the standpoint of equality. That is a classic example of how those two ideas of human rights and equality can conflict.
Therefore, when we have a single commission dealing with both issues, we need to be extremely careful that we do not swing one way or the other. If the Australian experience is any guide, that country has swung increasingly towards human rights and has marginalised the issue of equality. In New Zealand and other countries, the opposite has tended to happen.
Given that human rights and equality, both important as they are, do not necessarily converge, we need to take great care in setting up this commission, such that the balance between human rights and equality is nicely maintained. That will depend on how the commission is composed, how it is resourced and the guidelines that it is given.
The second issue concerns the reference in the Queen's gracious Speech about encouraging greater voter participation in elections. Why is that important? Why is it important whether 40 per cent or 90 per cent of the people vote? If citizens are not bothered about how their government is elected, why should we worry?
There are two reasons to worry. The first concerns the democratic legitimacy and authority of our institutions of government. The broader the base, the greater the legitimacy: the narrower the base, the less the legitimacy. If the government are to act decisively it is extremely important that they should have support that cuts across various regions and, more importantly, numerically it should be much larger than it has been so far.
The second reason is important and I want to stress it: an election is not simply the occasion for electing the government. An election is the only activity in our fragmented, alienated society in which all citizens commonly and publicly participate. It is the only common activity through which we initiate ourselves into the life of the community, build bonds and sustain a genuine political community. That is the importance of an election. It is not just to elect the government but also to bond the community and to provide an occasion when we can reflect on where we are going. We should be very careful to ensure that a larger percentage of people participate in electing the government than they have in the past.
The question therefore is: why is it that people do not vote in large numbers? In my discipline of political philosophy, pundits have done a lot of work. They give reasons, such as citizens do not have a sense of political obligation; or that people do not realise what it means to be a good citizen; or that many of them feel that they do not count in those constituencies that are dominated by a single partywhy bother to vote when your vote does not matter?; or that the choices between political parties are not sufficiently clear; or that
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people are cynicalwhat is the point in voting when the government will disregard what they committed themselves to in the manifesto anyway? There are all kinds of reasons why people do not see the point of voting.
Therefore, it is extremely important that we should tackle those reasons in order to try to find answers. Here I may be taking a slightly different line to my party. I do not think that postal voting, e-voting and telephone voting are the answer. They may solve the first function; namely, to draw out as many people as possible to get them to vote. But they do not serve the second, most important, constitutional function of an election; namely, getting people out of their homes, bonding with each other and taking part in the most important five-yearly public ritual in which a nation engages. Therefore, that is a lazy alternative. It may become necessary in a highly consumerist society that is profoundly apolitical, but it is not the way to go. Therefore, the question arises: what can we do such that people can be deeply engaged with the political process?
Without having the time to develop the arguments fully, I suggest that we need to tackle the problem at three levels. First, political parties need to look at themselves. They need to build up trust, to avoid personal attacks so that people are not turned away from the political process, and they need to produce manifestos which are seen as covenants or solemn commitments so that people know they can trust political parties to do what they have promised to do.
Secondly, the electoral system needs to be changed, and I was somewhat disappointed to note that in his opening remarks, the Lord Chancellor said he thought that there is no scope for making any major changes to the electoral system. I think that that is the wrong way to go. Much can be said for the system of first past the post, but the same is true for moving in the direction of revising it in many different ways. I shall not bore the House with the various alternatives, but unless people feel that their vote matters, even if they live in a constituency dominated by one party, we shall not persuade them to vote. The electoral system can be modified in countless ways without disrupting an MP's relationship with his own constituency.
Thirdly, we need to concentrate more than we have so far on fostering the spirit of citizenship so that when our young people grow up, they come to realise that just as they have an obligation to keep their promise, to honour their parents and so forth, they are also obliged to take responsibility for their community, to vote and to protest against acts of injustice.
Therefore the question here is this: how can we devise not just formal citizenship education, but the creation of democratic institutions in all areas of life so that people grow up breathing in the spirit of democracy and so cultivating a sense of responsibility? Voting is then simply its spontaneous and inescapable exercise.
I have run out of time, but I want briefly to flag an issue which I think is important. It goes to the heart of what the Government are trying to do; that is,
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fostering a culture of respect. I shall make two points. When we talk about respect we are considering not only respect for oneself, but also respect for others and for the rules and institutions of our society. Respect is a three-dimensional activity and all three aspects are closely related. Ultimately, self-respect is the basis of morality. We would not dream of doing certain things because if we did, we would not be able to respect or even live with ourselves. It is therefore important to cultivate individual self-respect. But in order to do thatbecause self-respect does not grow in thin airwe must ensure that each young person growing up in our society, whatever their colour, feels valued and that they count and enjoy a certain public status. In that way, if they misbehave or act in an unacceptable manner, they feel diminished both in their own eyes and in those of others.
We need to foster a culture in society at large so that those people who mismanage public resources, or politicians who have discredited themselves, do not come back in one form or another and are not able to find themselves lucrative jobs elsewhere. Creating the kind of culture where the norms are not upheld or are systematically violated means that the children growing up in our society will not develop respect for our institutions or for society as a whole.
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